History of Early Oregon Indian Education

In the 1850s, the United States made treaties with confederations of western Oregon tribes consisting of over sixty tribes consolidated on two reservations. In following decades, the U.S. government implemented on-reservation and off-reservation boarding schools in order to assimilate Indian children into American society. The initial educational protocols were based on those developed by religious missionaries in the early settlement periods for the Oregon Territory.

In fact, for the first couple of decades of the reservation, missionaries were assigned to each reservation to manage the schools. At Grand Ronde, the school was run by Catholic Reverend Adrian Croquet, a missionary out of Belgium, while at Siletz the school was operated by the Methodists. This was a program operated by the Commissioner of Indian affairs who assigned reservations to members of three religious organizations, Methodists, Catholics, and Protestants. The school at Grand Ronde, after 1860, was operated by an order of sisters (Sisters of the Holy Names, Marylhurst) who educated the children.

Rev. Adrien Crocket

By 1875, funding for education, written into treaties for 20 years, ended, and the federal government had to find a more economical way to educate Indian children. They established off-reservation Indian Boarding schools to take in hundreds of Native kids for much of their education. Some of the boarding schools began with children as early as 6 years old and many graduates of the high school programs remained around the schools as staff laborers and teachers.

Jason Lee’s Willamette Mission

Previous to the federal programs, education in western Oregon for Indians was managed by Methodist Reverend Jason Lee’s Willamette Mission. By February 1835, Reverend Lee had already taken in several Indian children and he and his teachers immediately began to educate them in the agriculture, animal husbandry, reading, and writing. These opinions were likewise supported by Catholic Missionaries in the Oregon Territory.

Jason Lee

Lee began with a traditional educational pedagogy:

We devote one hour each evening in teaching them to read and spell, and I think I never knew children make more rapid progress. I trust it will not be long before we shall have a flourishing school here, which I think is the most effectual means of benefiting these truly miserable beings” (Brosnan 1932:73).

Lee did not maintain a high opinion of his students but they made rapid progress. Lee housed, fed, clothed, and educated Indian children and renamed them with American sounding names like “Wilber Fisk” “Osmon C. Baker” and “Elijak Hedding” (Brosnan 1932:82). The children were taught a classical education, and were also taught the skills needed to run their own farms. Most of the education was in labor skills, woodworking, farming, blacksmithing, and animal husbandry. The majority of the first students were boys, and later on girls would learn laundry, sewing, cooking and other housewifery skills.

Early education efforts appear to have been in the Chinook Jargon (Chinuk wawa) language, a common medium of communication at Fort Vancouver and at other settlements. The teachers learned the wawa from the students to be able to talk to them and were teaching them to only speak in English. Chinuk Wawa language was also used to communicate with other Indians and attract them to church by Protestants and Catholics.

Willamette Mission

Lee’s Mission washed away in a flood in 1841. He rebuilt in the area of the Chemeketa Plains and called it the Indian Manual Training School. The footprint of the land claim for the Methodist Mission and Indian Manual Training School is now Downtown Salem, the State Capitol, Willamette University, and the Mission Mill.

Much of the philosophy behind the missionary programs was to “civilize” these Indians by eliminating their culture and spirituality and replace that with American culture and Christianity. Civilization equaled assimilation through various “American” cultural activities especially farming.

Agriculture in general was seen as a colonizing activity and sign of civilization. In 1850, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs gave orders to Superintendent Anson Dart to urge the Indians to “engage in agricultural pursuits” and missionaries among the Indians were to be encouraged to educate them in these pursuits (Bancroft 1888:208). In 1851, the Tualatin Kalapuya Indians already exhibited aspects of assimilation: “The Twallatty’s [sic] are, many of them, very good farmers, and are employed extensively during the harvest season in getting in the crops” (Anonymous, Oregonian, 1851).

After the Tribes were removed to the reservation in 1856, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs Edward Geary began establishing many of the reservation institutions. They build a hospital and a school for the reservation. Reports for the first couple of years suggest that school was only held for a few months of each year because of the lack of sufficient finding for teachers.

Each treaty had separate appropriations for a school teacher, so there were several “schools” or more likely classrooms in a building at the reservation. The first teacher we have a record for is Robert Ostrander, school teacher for Rogue River Tribes,

12/1856, M234

First there was quite a bit of organizing to make a school operational. In 1859, the Missionaries had not yet taken control of the school and the Indian agent at Grand Ronde is so busy establishing the reservation, and dealing with his family,  he has little time to organize a school.

Jim Chamberlain writes, “I should most respectfully say I hope to have a school of Indian Children of this reservation.” suggesting both that he has little time to establish the school, and that there is no school in operation late in 1859.

the next month (12/1859) Chamberlain writes,

I am under the impression that a mistake was made in the statement of funds remitted on account of Treaty stipulations… for the Calapooias, Mollalla, and Clackamas Indian of Willamette Valley- Last of 5 installment for pay of Physician, Teacher, Blacksmith & farmer per 3rd art[icle] of treaty $2,850.00, now sir this is only only half of the amount appropriated last year…ans the same … for the treaty of the Umpqua and Calapooia treaty…


12/23/1859 m234 series

The federal government was very inconsistent in their treaty payments which caused reservation programs  meant to serve the tribes, programs they paid for with their lands, to be very inconsistent.

In the earliest years, the Coast Reservation had more pressing problems regarding education. The tribes at the Siletz Agency appeared in federal records to not be able to claim funding under a treaty. Federal budgetary reports suggest that even though many of the tribes at Siletz had signed treaties, there appeared to be no treaty funds allocated for the Coast Reservation. The reason may be that because many of the tribal people at Siletz had gone to war against the Americans when they were in their traditional lands, however legitimate, they had violated the terms of the treaty to stay on the temporary reservation (Table Rock) and live in peace, and as such they did not have a treaty rights each year. The Indian Superintendent for Oregon, understanding this situation, simply reallocated all of the treaty funds for the seven treaties of western Oregon to cover institutions at Siletz and Grand Ronde, as well as requested basic operational funding each year for the Coast Reservation, usually about $10,000 each year. This was a very tight budget, so while Willamette Valley Treaty funds were allocated to Grand Ronde, other treaty funds, like that for the Umpqua might be allocated to Siletz. Similarly, these funds were used to aid tribes not on reservations like the Tillamooks on the north coast through services and travel costs of the agent to visit them.

Many children were inconsistent students because Native families were not used to their children leaving them for whole days, and so many did not allow their kids to go to school instead insisting that they help around their houses, on their farms, and/or for hunting and fishing for food. The tribes were supposed to feed themselves, under federal policy, yet were not given the tools, resources, or funding to establish productive farms.  Many of the families had return to their cultural ways and forage in the Coast range for berries and roots, dig camas, and hunt and fish (when allowed to),  to have food.

Tualatin Chief Kiakuts explains the situation well in 1862.

Some have lands and some have none, would be glad if all had land. They all want to work. some have no land and some no team, have 5 yoke of oxen, no able to work, no seed. have had nothing to eat for some time but the cattle that have dried. now live on camas. Fed all their grain to their stock … Has ground plowed and has asked for seed and can’t get any

The schools though were based on a classical American education which was teaching many skills that were  antithetical to what they needed to do to survive as farmers and foragers.

Civilizing the Natives

The way in which the missionaries went about their “civilizing” of Indian children is problematic. Activities at the Willamette Mission (1834-1850) involved ministers taking in children off the Willamette Plains into their mission and training them in religion, agriculture, ranching, and other home trades. For some this equates to kidnapping.  Indian children were renamed in American names, made to cut their hair and dress in American clothing, and made to work around the farm in support of the mission. At the mission the children were exposed to a wider variety of diseases from the many visitors. Many died within the first year, and in the 1850s the Indian Manual Training School had to close down because the majority of the students all died from a disease.

However, many Indian parents really wanted their kids to get an education. They envisioned that there was power in reading and writing. They saw even assimilation as a positive educational direction and were inculcated in the idea that they were savages and they needed civilizing to be saved.

All of the treaties of purchase with the tribes in western Oregon included funding for education and assimilation. The tribes wanted their own farms, and livestock, and accepted the direction of agriculture as a way to gain power in American society. But American society was changing and by the 20th century small scale farming was not a way to earn a living.

The Treaty with the Chasta (1854) has some of this language.

said annuities to be expended for the use and benefit of said bands and tribe in such manner as the President may from time to time prescribe; for provisions, clothing, and merchandise; for buildings, opening and fencing farms, breaking land, providing stock, agricultural implements, tools, seeds, and such other objects as will in his judgment promote the comfort and advance the prosperity and civilization of said Indians . . . . School-houses shall be erected, and qualified teachers employed to instruct children on the reserve, and books and stationery furnished for fifteen years” (Palmer 1854a).

In 1878, Sinnott describes the educational and supplies needs of Grand Ronde students:

The expiration of the treaty with the Umpqua and Calapooia Indians, of $1,450 per annum for school purposes, last July, leaves but $3,000 per annum for the support of schools, pay of teachers, clothing and subsistence of pupils, books, & c [etc]. The amount necessary is $5,000. The average of 100 scholars could then be assured. In my last report I stated the necessity of a new building, suitable for a boarding-house, in connection with the school. The building now in use is entirely unfit for the purpose. I hope to be able to build one the present year (Commissioner of Indian Affairs 1878).

The loss of the education funds left the Indians in a precarious and insecure position as to the education of their children. The lack of commitment on the part of the government to support the Indians in their education was apparent during the 19th century.

Off reservation boarding schools

Federal Indian boarding schools were established in the image of military boarding schools.  The United States educational policy became “Kill the Indian, Save the man” a famous statement made by Capt. Pratt in 1879. The notion was to eliminate Native culture and make the students become civilized Christian American men (and women).

Chemawa Indian Boarding School, Salem Oregon, still in Operation today

In Oregon, the only boarding school was Chemawa Indian School. It initially began as Forest Grove Indian Boarding School (1880-1884). A fire in 1884 burned one of the buildings to the ground and the federal government took the opportunity to move the school to the vicinity of Salem, Oregon. Chemawa Indian Boarding school was the second in the nation to be established. The Indian education policy was “assimilation” or changing the character of the Indian students to Americans. Children were normally sent to off-reservation boarding schools far from their reservations to eliminate the possibility of them escaping and returning home.

Through assimilation the Federal Government expected Indian people to eventually leave the reservation and stop being Indian. This was the original purpose that was carried forward through numerous administrations. The Bureau of Indian Affairs was given a small budget to manage all of the reservation and so they impoverished the tribes for over 100 years (1850s-1950s). The whole purpose was to make conditions so bad that this would influence the tribal people to leave and integrate into American society and stop being Indians. Once their people were gone they would stop being a tribe and the government could abrogate the treaties, take the land, and eliminate them from the administrative overhead.

The boarding schools and assimilation were another step in this direction of eliminating tribes. Many of the students learned skills in school that they could not use on their reservations. Many did not return to the reservation but stayed in the cities to find work. In this manner hundreds of Indians became lost to their people.

The assimilationist policy of the United States continued until the 1950s. Then, the federal government changed its Indian policy to Termination. In Oregon, it was determined that the tribes were assimilated enough to terminate the reservations. Without any scientific or other studies, Congress ad-hoc decided that the tribes were no longer culturally Indian and therefore not deserving of Indian rights under their treaties. All western Oregon tribes, and the Klamath tribe, were terminated in 1954, and by 1956 and 1961 respectively they were fully terminated, their reservations sold and had no native rights in their homelands. In 100 years the federal government succeeded to gaining all of the lands of western Oregon through successive strategies of assimilation and dispossession.



5 thoughts on “History of Early Oregon Indian Education

  1. This was such helpful information. I’ve been trying to gain more information about various NAI schools in Oregon. Were they all boarding schools? There are some amazing beaded pieces of jewelry that come from the Eastern Oregon, Salem and sometimes the North West Coastal areas. The appear to be newer than the 1940’s, 1950s and 1960’s – some even the 1970s. They are easy to date, because of the material. We are wondering if the work was done in a Native American Indian School. Any information you can provide would be helpful.

      1. do you know if there are photos of the students from the time of 1908?? my great grandfather was a student there in 1909 with his brothers. we do not have any photographs of him.

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